Nostalgia Competition - Winner

Dominic Bell

Nostalgia Competition


Dominic Bell is a former oil rig worker from Hull, East Yorkshire, and multiple WM winner.
He writes as a break from computer programming and attending to the needs of his teenage children. His main writing project is endlessly editing a series of First World War novels.

Ravenscar By Dominic Bell

I message Dawn.

<< We still going to the coast? xxx >>

<< Yes. You drive. x >>

Less kisses than mine. And I don’t want to drive. But we’re not really like that anyway. We both still live in our own houses. I live in fear she will go into a care home first, that I will be the one having to visit, having to watch her fade. We are – I don’t know what we are really. Allies against the dying of the light? Friends who sleep over sometimes? Just two people who don’t want to be alone?
We see each other most days. Sometimes just for one of our standard walks, preceded by coffee, followed by a pub meal. We usually walk miles, even in the rain. Sometimes I’ll cook for her, or she for me, and overnight together before the chaos of my house or the neatness of hers drives us apart again. Sometimes, if her son is away abroad, there’s a dog with her, a black and white dog that regards me suspiciously. She is happier when it is there, for it reminds her of other dogs that have been in her life, who have now slipped their leads for good. At mine there is a cat, who lives her own life. She is a welcome source of warmth in the winter, for my house is old. When I leave it it will be ripped apart, the gas heating stripped out, the single walls lined, the windows triple glazed, the roof solar-panelled, a nineteenth century house upgraded to survive the twenty-first like so many others on the street. But it does for me now, even if it is too cold in winter. Like now. We go out because our cars are warm and comfortable, even if they too are relics. The last of the petrol ones, illegal to buy now. Mine is a little more socially acceptable than Dawn’s, being at least a hybrid, but hers is pure petrol, people turning in the streets to watch it go by. She has had it fifteen years and every MOT she says that if it fails she will not get another. But every time the old man at the little garage she goes to nurses it through and charges her almost nothing just, I think, for the sake of keeping it going, and so her little car lives to slowly pull away from the lights while the electric one next to it takes off like a fighter jet.
I drive to hers, and she has changed her mind, of course.
‘We’ll go in mine, or else you’ll whine in the pub.’
This is true, so I agree, and my car is left outside her house.
I climb into hers and she drives off carefully. I watch the speedometer for her. Most cars alarm if you go over the speed limit, and the newest don’t even let you, but for her there are still no limits.
She can go wild and do 93 mph in a 20 zone if she wants to, but she does not. Only on motorways is she sometimes slightly evil, slowly passing newer cars limited by their computers. Not that the drivers care, for they are watching films or looking at their socials while the same computer keeps them perfectly positioned in the traffic.
Not that we are doing any motorwaying today. Instead we are off to sunny Scarborough. We park up and get out into the cold. The beach is almost empty even though the tide is far out, the wind and cold keeping most away even on a sunny day like this. We walk along it, round to where the speedboats go from in summer, then on around the headland. The climb up the cliff gets harder every time. We circle back past the castle. Her cheeks are flushed, her grey hair wild in the wind. I wish, as I often do, I had known her when she was young. I take her hand, pull her to me for a minute and kiss her cheek.
‘Get off,’ she says, but she keeps hold of my hand as we navigate down the icy hill. We successfully make it to the car with no falls. She sets off again for The Pub as we call it. It is our favourite of all the coastal pubs, an uncomfortable cold place out on a windswept headland. Just about everything in it is listed, and it has a special licence to burn coal. There are not many places you can smell the nose tickling tang of that now. We walk in through the big wooden door and over the rounded stones of the floor, back into the past where old men look at Dawn appraisingly, and older women look at her jealously. We go to the bar and I order a dark sweet ale. To my surprise she orders a half of the same. We find a table next to the crackling glow of the fire and sit down.
Watching it brings back long ago memories of my grandparents, of poking the fire and watching sparks fly, the coals brightening and dimming as if they were made of hundreds of tiny LED lights.
My mother’s house had the blue hiss of gas, warmer by far, but never changing. Seeing the real fire makes me say how my electric fire with its simulated flames is nothing like it, and Dawn says that I always say that. And so we sit in quiet silence watching it until the food comes.
It is roast chicken with all the trimmings, good enough, but we comment on our mothers’ cooking being better, as we always do, and then we have another drink each, her one another half, and I raise my eyebrows at her, but do not comment. I do not tell her what to do. She raises her eyebrows back and smiles.
‘Do you know what today is?’
I think about it.
‘Well done. Anything else?’
I shake my head.
‘It’s the twentieth anniversary of the day we met.’
I should have known that.
‘That was a bad day. I mean -’
‘I know what you mean.’
She had been taking her mother to the dementia group for a couple of months. I was taking mine for the first time. She had hated it, had panicked. Dawn had calmed her, and our mothers had seemed to hit it off. Being both divorced and still with children at home Dawn and I had also formed an instant alliance. Together we had helped them stay in their homes until one by one they had had the inevitable accident which took them into a hospital, never to be released except into the same high-dependency care home.
Dawn helped me through it all. I did not help her much, but I did hold her when she despaired.
We did our visits together to help us through, we worked through the paperwork to become their deputies for their financial affairs, and finally we went together to the funerals, though we did not cry. We had done that long before when our mothers had stopped recognising us, had stopped talking at all, had become only outwardly still our mothers. We used to be so busy, working, coping with aged parents, trying to sort out our teenagers, everything at once. Now the teenagers are bringing up their own children, and we are left only to worry, held in reserve for some disaster we hope never comes.
‘Twenty years. You win the prize for enduring me for the longest,’ I say.
‘I won that long ago. I’m amazed your wife -’
‘Ex-wife,’ I interrupt, as always.
‘I’m amazed she put up with you for ten years.’
I make no return barb. She too had been left for an improved and younger model. Not that it had been much of a loss, by the sound of it. But the left are always heartbroken and the leavers always self-justify, only to do it all again to the next person they find.
‘I’ll have another,’ she says, surprising me again. She rarely drinks, and never when driving.
‘Oh...’ I say, in as non-questioning tone as I can.
‘It is all right. I’ve booked that room, the one overlooking the sea.. You remember?’
I do. I touch her hand, say nothing.
I fetch her the drink, another for myself.
She is staring into the fire when I get back. She looks sad.
‘You OK?’ I say.
‘Someone told me yesterday that Alan had died. A while back, but I never knew.’
Her boyfriend from university. He too had gone off with someone else eventually. She often talked about holidays they had gone on, things they had done.
‘The love of your life you once called him.’
‘Yes. I loved him so much.’ She took a gulp of her beer and I saw a tear glitter down her cheek.
I put my hand on hers.
‘I’m sorry. He sounded like a nice bloke from everything that you have ever told me about him.’
‘He was, until he wasn’t.’ She looks at me, her gaze intense. ‘Yes, they were good times. But you can have many loves of your life, you know. And you think each one is the one, don’t you? For a minute, or a month, or a year, or a decade they shine like the sun and everyone else is hidden. And with every one you share different things, different times, sometimes good times like holidays, and sometimes – sometimes times that are not so good.’
I nod. ‘Yes.’ I look at her old face, into the faded eyes of my daily companion and confidante for so long. ‘You’re not hidden.’
Her eyes soften. ‘Neither are you.’
I feel myself smirk, ridiculously pleased and proud, my own eyes blurring a little.
‘Oh, God, look at you,’ she says.
But she is smiling and her hand is holding mine.

Judges Comments

A quiet, profound remembrance of the past is woven into the entire texture of 'Ravenscar', by Dominic Bell, the winner of WM's Nostalgia Story Competition.

It's a thoughtful late-life romance, narrated in first person and set in a near-future world where computer-operated cars are an everyday choice and the petrol one that the narrator's companion drives is a notable oddity and a marker of her individuality. Both partners are at a stage in life where their lives have been marked by loss – of parents, other partners, ways of living – and their initial bond, in a story that's all about remembrance and looking back at things that have gone, was over their mothers as dementia eroded their memories. 

There's nothing forced in the nostalgia in this story: it's a mood, beautifully captured and evoked, that permeates the story from beginning to end. What sets Dominic's treatment of the theme apart is the way he layers nostalgia for the past with the new memories that are being created in a present that is, for all the losses the two characters have lived through, a time when their shared life has much to offer – walks, The Pub, a sustaining relationship.

Low-key and unsentimental, 'Ravenscar' is a beautifully crafted, very moving exploration of the way nostalgia for what's gone is part of the texture of human existence. It's a really deserving win, as past, present and a hopeful future are all woven together in this lovely, layered story.

Runner up and shortlisted
The runner up in WM’s Nostalgia Competition is Brian Holland, York. Read his entry here:
Also shortlisted were: Anna Caddy, Chard, Somerset; Heather Cuny, Bar sur Loup, France; Louisa Danmeri, Tokyo, Japan; Lynda Green, Cambourne; Ben Howels, Exeter, Devon; Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire; Vivienne Moles, Winford, Isle of Wight; Joelle Simpson, Bucksburn, Aberdeen; Saniya Syzdykova, Burbage; Sarah Turner, Rayleigh, Essex; Jackie Winter, Blandford Forum, Dorset.